Ages & Stages: 0-5: Tricky Picky Toddlers

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“He refuses to eat vegetables and meat. He likes to eat fruit and bread and he used to like to eat yogurt, but even that has become hit or miss,” says Sara Krull, who is the mother of two toddlers. “People always say that if children are hungry, they will eat, but it is still [worrisome] to have your child eat so little and not eat from all of the food groups.”

She shares these same nutritional concerns about her 14-month-old son as many other parents do. Toddlers can leave you wondering how they have the energy to keep going all day with only a few bites of food. However, toddlers’ appetites and eating patterns are very different from adults, so there’s not always a cause for concern.

Selective Eaters, Appetite Slumps
“Picky toddlers are an interesting but complex topic,” says Lucille Beseler, a registered dietitian, president of the Family Nutrition Center of South Florida and co-author of the book “Nurturing with Nutrition” (DMI, 2003). “Toddlers normally will go through periods of being picky eaters.”

Beseler, who specializes in pediatric nutrition, points out that a child’s appetite usually decreases after they turn 1. Because of this, people often think they just aren’t eating. One major concern is that parents often compare their child’s eating habits to their own. This can become a problem, because adults are often used to eating by the clock, out of boredom or even for emotional reasons.

Toddlers, on the other hand, are still in tune with their body’s hunger cues. They are more apt to skip meals if they aren’t hungry. Parents often mean well but in an effort to make sure their toddlers get sufficient nutrients, they ultimately teach their children to ignore the hunger signals and simply eat by the clock, or to eat everything on their plate. Experts today are urging parents against this, as it may lead to weight-management issues.

All toddlers experience a decrease in appetite, and it’s normal. According to researchers at University of Michigan Health System, there is an appetite slump that happens between 1 and 5 years old. During the toddler years, children are growing at a much slower rate and simply don’t need as many calories per day.

Eating Patterns
Many parents can relate to the possibility that a child will have a huge appetite one day and then, for the next two days, eat like a bird. This is considered “tanking up.” “It’s when they fill their ‘gas tank’ and go for periods of time without eating as much,” says Beseler.

Another common concern is called a food jag, when a toddler insists on eating the same thing over and over. Food jags are normal for young children and are usually temporary. The important thing is to not allow the child to just eat that one food. For example, if all she wants is macaroni and cheese, tell her that today she will have something else, and tomorrow she can have that meal.

Meal Tips
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to feeding picky toddlers. While we can’t make them eat, we can take steps to make the process a little easier.

Nutrients. If your toddler is going through a period of not wanting to eat vegetables, try to give her a fruit that contains the same type of nutrients. Add shredded vegetables to dishes that will make them less noticeable.

Consistency. If you offer your child something once or twice and she doesn’t like it, don’t give up. It may take more than 20 attempts at offering a particular food before your child acquires a taste for it.

Avoid Grazing. Some people advocate grazing, but if a toddler eats throughout the day, it’s unlikely that she will have much of an appetite when it’s time for a meal. Children do, however, need a couple of small, healthful snacks throughout the day.

Liquid Calories. Juice, milk and other liquids all add to the caloric intake and can decrease appetite at meals. Limit fruit juices and offer water throughout the day.

Portion Control. Parents often have a distorted idea of what a toddler’s portion size should be, and they pile a lot of food on the plate. Keep in mind that a toddler’s portion will be about one-quarter to one-half of an adult’s portion size.

Vitamins. Talk to your pediatrician about whether you should give your child a multivitamin.

Control. Put your child in control by letting her feed herself. By age 1, children should be able to pick up small pieces of food and feed themselves.

Don’t Push. As much as possible, avoid pushing a child to eat. You should never force your toddler to eat.

Seeking Help. If your child’s lack of appetite is prolonged, and you notice weight loss, talk to your pediatrician.


Jacqueline Bodnar is a freelance writer and mother of two.